Barry was a successful British Army surgeon who served in India and Cape Town, South Africa, and eventually rose to the rank of Inspector General in charge of military hospitals. Despite reportedly having a sometimes difficult personality, James Barry was known for his commitment to improving conditions for soldiers and the local population.
So it may come as a surprise to learn that he started life as Margaret Ann Bulkley. Her relatives, including her uncle (the celebrated artist James Barry), conspired to get her into medical school.
In a time when women had very few career choices, a cunning plan was hatched so that Margaret could become a doctor. She arrived by sea in Edinburgh as ‘James Barry’, attended medical school and graduated in 1812. After six months at St Thomas's Hospital in London, she joined the army as a surgeon in 1813. While in the army, in charge of the Cape Colony, she reorganised medical care with a strong emphasis on public health, improved hygiene standards and adequate diet. Her methods of nursing sick and wounded soldiers from the Crimea meant that she had the highest recovery rate of the whole war. She also performed one of the first successful Caesarean sections in 1826,several years before the surgery was common in Britain, and produced a definitive report on cholera in Malta in 1848.
Barry had a colourful military career; she survived making enemies, intrigues, a court martial where she was demoted, and illness. Barry was so successful at maintaining her deception that it was only when she died of dysentery in 1865 that her secret was discovered. The woman who laid out her body revealed that, although she had spent 46 years masquerading as a man in the British Army, ‘James Barry’ was indeed a woman. The story of Margaret Ann Bulkley illustrates the lengths that at least one determined woman would go to achieve her dream of becoming a doctor.